Does the world seem messier than usual? Stories about ISIS, the Syrian refugee crises, police and gang shootings, the US Presidential campaign, terrorist attacks, drought, epidemic outbreaks, and unease in the Ukraine, North Korea, Palestine, Iraq, and Israel advance the perception that the world is worse off than ever before. The world feels more unsettled than usual, but is that quantifiably true?
In December 2014 Slate authors, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, asked this question and concluded, “The World is Not Falling Apart.” To determine whether the world was coming apart at the seams, they conducted an in-depth study of world-wide statistics in the following areas: homicides, violence against women, violence against children, democratization vs. autocracy, genocide & mass killings of civilians and war. In each category, the trend lines are headed downward. Based on statistics and hard numbers, the world today is actually safer and more peaceful in each of these categories than it has been in the last sixty years.
Why doesn’t this quantifiable truth seem real? Maybe it’s the inescapable 24/7news that keeps the hard stuff front and center. Or the invasion of links to world and personal tragedies in the once-benign Facebook feed of kittens, babies and family gatherings. Or the transformation of the news into entertainment as presciently predicted in the 1976 classic movie, Network. Or the barrage of news when pumping gas or waiting for a flight that makes us think the world is messier than usual. Whatever the cause, the net result of continual exposure to disasters and tragedies is pessimism and anxiety.
Studies after 9/11 showed that viewers who watched the continual replays of the collapsing Trade Towers were generally more stressed and distraught than those who viewed them fewer times. Women and children are affected most, but it impacts everyone. Watching the same video footage over and over indelibly presses the scene into our mushy cerebrum and traumatizes us over and over. There’s a reason it’s called a news feed. We ingest what we read, absorb it into our system and are influenced by the quality or lack of nutrients. Just as someone determined to lose weight counts the calories, we need to think about our news diet. Are we eating all day long? Consuming junk? Caught in the latest acai berry trend? Obsessed with trending arrows and hashtags, likes and shares? Addicted to the rush from following breaking stories?
Awareness of the onslaught of news and our rate of consumption makes total separation appealing, but it’s neither an attainable goal nor healthy. While trend lines slope downward, they aren’t at 0. We need the news to remind us that work remains as injustice, hatred, and evil still lurk. We need the stories to spark us to volunteer, start an organization, send an email, or research the issue further. We would hurt ourselves and others if we disengaged entirely. If cold turkey or constant connection aren’t beneficial, how do we find the balance between uninformed and overwhelmed?
To stop the news balloon from blocking the sun and triggering Eeyore thinking, I’ve found the following tips helpful:
- Avoid the news until later in the morning so it doesn’t set the tone for the day.
- Be selective before entering the never-ending chain of links in online articles.
- Consider whether the source has been vetted or is the story more personal outrage like the Starbucks Christmas cup fiasco.
- Help others by limiting what you “share”, especially early commentary on an issue. Too many times I’ve shared and later regretted it when the claim was debunked–like the use of Roundup as the cause for the rise in gluten intolerance.
- Notice my emotional reaction, and pull away when fear and anger take over. Unless those emotions propel me into helpful action, mere fretting wastes valuable energy.
- When now seems the worst time to be alive, it’s time to pull away and re-calibrate.
The world is messy, people’s lives are messy, but that reality can’t be the main lens that frames our perspective.